AUSTIN, Minn. – Last summer Nancy Dolphin joined her Mower County neighbors in an unusual science experiment: They headed out every week and after every heavy rainstorm to measure E. coli bacteria in the nearby Cedar River and its tributaries.
They believed no one was doing enough to fight pollution in the streams that flow through their backyards, so they took matters into their own hands.
They found the infectious bacteria, often in dangerously high concentrations, almost everywhere they looked, including the creek that flows by Dolphin's house. It came from hogs, cows and — in surprisingly high numbers — human waste.
"Our grandchildren, they can't help but be drawn to the creek," she said last week in a tearful plea to the Mower County Board of Commissioners. "But the water that flows by our house is not safe for them. I'm a grandma. What do I do?"
Joining a determined group of community activists was clearly one place to start. The grass-roots Cedar River Watershed Project now stands as a case study in the most effective way to succeed in the daunting struggle to improve water quality across the southern part of Minnesota, where it is most polluted, said Mae Davenport, a professor of environmental social science at the University of Minnesota.
Protecting Minnesota's waters comes down to citizens stepping up to change community standards, Davenport said.
"They tap into our emotional selves and our ethical sense of responsibility," she said of the group's plea to clean up a popular recreational river basin. "That's what motivates."
And at least last week, it appeared to be working. By the end of the meeting, which was packed with supporters, the county commissioners agreed to try to figure out a way to accelerate the cleanup of leaky septic systems in the county.
"Now we just have to keep after them," said Don Arnosti, conservation director of the Isaak Walton League, who helped coordinate the grant-funded citizen science project. And he doesn't just mean the Mower County commissioners. His group has carried the same message to officials from Dodge County, local water conservation districts and Austin-based pork product manufacturer Hormel Foods.
The Cedar River starts in Dodge County, north of Austin, and meanders south through small towns and corn and soybean fields on its way to Iowa. A recreational river, it's widely used for fishing, swimming and boating.
Like the vast majority of rivers in southern Minnesota, it's also polluted with fertilizers and sediment that runs off fields and streets.
But it's the E. coli bacteria, which comes from animal manure and human waste, that can make people sick. It's especially dangerous for young children and the elderly.
The Cedar River's high concentrations have been widely recognized and well documented for many years. That, in fact, was precisely what motivated some friends and neighbors to take matters into their own hands.
Larry Dolphin was until recently director of the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center just outside of town, a 500-acre preserve of woods, prairie and trails around Dobbins Creek. There, generations of schoolkids have learned about water quality — and testing for E. coli is part of the curriculum. Nancy Dolphin, his wife, was a longtime schoolteacher.
Bill Buckley, now retired, worked for much of his life in the Mower County environmental division and was responsible for enforcing septic tank regulations. And Paul Jenkins, also retired, worked for 38 years at the Austin sewage treatment plant. He recruited a band of 4-H kids to participate in the water testing as their project.
With a $100,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation, they learned how to take water samples and grow bacteria in a lab dish. They chose 83 sites on the Cedar River and its tributaries, and over the last summer sampled them once a week and, whenever possible, after a rainstorm, when bacteria would be flushed into the streams.
They found that 70 percent of their 500 samples exceeded the state's human health standards. That means that swimming isn't safe and that anyone touching the water should wash their hands.
They took the extra step of sending some of their 500 samples to a lab for DNA testing to determine exactly what produced the E. coli. They expected to find the source was hogs, since pork production is a major industry around Austin, and many farmers use the manure on their fields.
In February they took their findings to Hormel executives and asked them to increase education and standards for the producers in their supply chain and to sponsor a conference in Austin next year on best agricultural practices.
"We are asking them to be the leader in the community," Arnosti said.
Hormel officials said that's what they strive for. The company supports sustainable agriculture education and efforts to raise standards for its producers, as well as a major community initiative focused on improving water quality in the Cedar River.
"We are all committed to the same mission and goals here," said Tom Day, a Hormel vice president.
Leaky septic tanks
But last week it was the surprisingly high levels of the human brand of E. coli that brought the citizen scientists to the Mower County Board meeting, because the source is likely faulty or nonexistent septic systems.
That, too, is a long-recognized pollution problem for Mower and Minnesota's other largely rural counties. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 5 percent of the state's 500,000 home septic systems are considered a human health risk — although that's down from 11 percent a decade ago. Much of that improvement came from county efforts to identify and fix problem systems, officials said.
In Mower County, as in most others, septic systems have to be checked and upgraded when a home is sold or to get a construction permit, officials said. But at that rate, they estimate that all the septic systems that need upgrading won't be done for about 20 years — and that's just not fast enough for the members of the Cedar River group.
"It's time to take some action and clean up the water for all the kids and families of Mower County," Nancy Dolphin told commissioners. She and others asked that the county check the 60 septic systems along Dobbins Creek for which it has no current records and to require homeowners to replace or repair faulty ones by the end of the year.
But forcing that on homeowners is a struggle, said Commissioner Polly Glynn, adding that she gets calls from angry constituents when they get a notice from the county.
"The biggest concern is money," she said. "It's not that they don't want to do it. They feel they can't afford to upgrade."
Nonetheless, it is their responsibility, said Larry Dolphin. "And we all live downstream."
The commissioners agreed to refer the question to their finance subcommittee and investigate sources of grants or other funding to help homeowners pay for upgraded systems.
But clearly, forcing such change on constituents made some commissioners uncomfortable.
"What do you tell these people?" said Commissioner Mike Ankeny after the meeting.
For Jenkins, who brought some of the 4-H kids to the meeting to see democracy in action, Ankeny was expressing a well-worn conundrum.
"Everyone wants clean water," he said. "But nobody wants to pay for it."